Venice activist fought overdevelopment, guided local land-use policy

By Gary Walker

The late Venice activist Challis Macpherson and daughter Diahna Fortuna

The late Venice activist Challis Macpherson and daughter Diahna Fortuna

Challis Macpherson, a 40-year Venice resident who was instrumental in developing local policies designed to protect her adopted community from overdevelopment, died recently after an extended bout with melanoma.

Honored posthumously with a Spirit of Venice Award on Sunday during the Abbot Kinney Festival, Macpherson was 78 when she died on Aug. 19.

Known for her outspoken personality and her fealty to the community’s guiding principle on land-use matters — the Venice Coastal Specific Plan — she is remembered by many as a champion for localized policymaking who was guided by a love of Venice.

Venice Neighborhood Council President Emeritus Linda Lucks said Macpherson was her go-to person on development and planning issues and credited Macpherson with leading the fight to preserve the community’s economically and socially diverse landscape against the pressures of gentrification.

“Challis was a force of nature who will be sorely missed. Her institutional memory of land-use issues and dedication to Venice was incomparable,” Lucks said.

Macpherson initially made her mark as a Venice activist in the 1970s and ‘80s while working on the Venice Coastal Specific Plan and serving on the Venice Town Council, a now defunct predecessor of the current neighborhood council. Macpherson later was voted onto the Venice Neighborhood Council, where she served for multiple terms as the chair of its land use and planning committee.

Some of Macpherson’s former board mates saw her for the last time when the Venice Neighborhood Council held a video conference with the homebound Macpherson during its July meeting.

“Challis was the queen of land use issues throughout Los Angeles, not just in Venice,” said council parliamentarian Ivan Spiegel. “She was outspoken and when she felt that she was right about something, she wouldn’t give up.”

During the meeting, Department of Neighborhood Empowerment LA General Manager Grayce Liu, who oversees the city’s neighborhood council system, thanked Macpherson for her advocacy, which included teaching other neighborhood councils about city planning.

“You’re a firecracker and are so passionate. You spoke your mind and that’s what I love about you,” Liu said.

Macpherson provided advice to subsequent land use and planning chairs in Venice, most recently to Robin Rudisill.

“Challis was a role model and a teacher, a fearless leader, a fighter to the end. When Challis believed in you, you believed in yourself,” Rudisill said.

Born in National City, Calif., as Challis Linda Naoma on Sept. 9, 1936, Macpherson attended businesses school in Spokane, Wash., on a full scholarship. She returned to California in 1956 and attended Santa Monica College before earning a B.A. in fine arts from UCLA in 1981. She married Wallace Macpherson on Valentine’s Day in 1969, and in 1974 the couple moved to the Oxford Triangle area of Venice with their daughter in tow.

“My mom was an amazing person: passionate, charismatic, creative and practical. She picked her battles wisely, was a go-getter — curious, a lifetime learner, fun and inspirational,” said Macpherson’s daughter, Diahna Fortuna.

One of Macpherson’s final political victories came in 2014, when she filed an appeal against how city planning officials interpreted the manner in which developers could purchase large lots within the coastal zone in Venice and subsequently subdivide them into smaller parcels.

Macpherson lobbied successfully to have Planning Director Michael LoGrande issue a directive last year stating that the Venice Coastal Specific Plan should supersede general city zoning laws when the two conflict — including its small lot subdivision ordinance.

Rudisill called that victory “a boon” for Venice.

In her final conversation with The Argonaut about a month before her passing, Macpherson said she was proud of her work on land-use and planning policy in Venice.

“I just tried to always do what I thought was right for Venice,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

Macpherson also had an artistic side. She enjoyed sewing and making jewelry, Fortuna recalled, and was well-known around Venice for her colorful assortment of hats.

Fortuna said her mother’s proudest legacy was founding Playa Vista Jobs, an initiative that places at-risk youth and adults into career-track construction jobs.